Many people regard Swindon as a desert – culturally, concretely, completely. They see it as the kind of place where nothing of note has ever or will ever happen. Growing up in Swindon, I know that this is simply not true. There was one fertile spot in our desert, a body of water that drew wildlife from across the surrounding planes – the Oasis Leisure Centre.
It was recently announced that Swindon’s premier leisure centre is to close permanently. The news of its cessation has sent artificial shockwaves throughout the local community and stirred up a maelstrom in the tepid chlorinated pools of my nostalgia. So much of my childhood and formative years were happily spent at the Oasis to the extent that I feel a large chunk of me still floats atop its water like the fabled turd of many a West Country toddler.
The Oasis contained everything imaginable beneath its futuristic 45 ft high dome and sprawling subterranean spaces. The vanguard in a great swath of pioneering 1970’s leisure centres, it housed a swimming pool, a water park, a sports centre, a snooker hall, a concert venue, an arcade, a restaurant and bar. It housed the full-size snooker tables where my dad taught me how to hold a cue and lose 397 times in a row. It was where I attended Glenn Hoddle’s soccer school and graduated with flying colours and a signed certificate. It was where I bought Guns ‘n Roses bootleg CDs for extortionate fees at the local Record Fairs. It was where I swam, snogged, snacked, smashed, scored, slipped and slide tackled away the best hours of the best years of my life.
At the age of sixteen, I started English Literature at college. When the lecturer read the class Kubla Khan by Coleridge, my only frame of reference for a ‘stately pleasure-dome’ was the Oasis leisure centre. The tripped-out vision of a poet is what the Oasis was and will always be to me.
The Oasis was the Domebusters and the Domebusters were everything I had ever dreamt of as a child.
These three water slides delivered countless thrills to the pre-pubescent youth of the South West. Kids would flock from Chipping Sodbury, Shepton Mallet and Shrivenham to get their fill.
The Domebusters were terrifying. Just to get to the slides, you had to negotiate a dark cave where witches cackled and cobwebs clung, and elaborate glow in the dark hieroglyphics tried to communicate their warnings from across history. You then had to negotiate a series of stairways to get to the full height of these elaborate winding tunnels and the inevitable queues.
Each slide was graded based on the danger it posed to your health. Some you could take headfirst, others sitting down. You had to wait behind your choice of slide with a coloured mat in your clammy hands until the light turned to green and a spotty teen gave you the nod. Over the course of 100 metres, there were vertical drops, sharp bends, and the mind-blowing experience of speeding headfirst into translucent light and the unknown.
The thing that we all feared though was not in the design of the water slides, but born from the twisted minds of Swindon’s lost children. There was the very real threat that the kid in front of you would suddenly spread-eagle themselves mid-way down the slide, coming to a halt. As the water rushed beneath them, they would remove a mound of Hubba Bubba from their mouths and a razorblade from their trunks and afix it to the bottom of the slide. They would continue down the slide until the next kid came whizzing down to be sliced to shreds.
If the razorblades didn’t get you, the fibreglass joins were enough to raise red welts on skinny limbs. If you managed to avoid injury within the slide, then you were guaranteed to get karate kicked in the neck at the bottom of the tube as you gathered yourself and adjusted your dignity before emerging from the danger zone.
The Domebusters left their mark on all who rode them. Up until my early twenties, I had recurring dreams or segments of dreams where I would suddenly find myself plunged into a cylindrical tube, whooshed away to some other non-sequitur.
My parents took me to my first ever pop concerts at the Oasis in the early 90s. It all started with The Sounds of the Sixties featuring Herman’s Hermits and The Hollies. A stage was constructed on the halfway line of the indoor football pitch and plastic seats positioned across the badminton courts. Toupees were twitching, dentures vibrating and toes tapping from the service line in no time. And within my ten-year-old self, a lifelong passion for live music was ignited.
The First Date
It was around the time Margaret Thatcher stole our milk. I had been saving my pocket money for months, subconsciously adopting my own take on austerity. A mound of 20 pence pieces sat in a jar in my room as uneaten sweets lined the shelves of Drury’s. I’d not been saving for this date specifically or any date for that matter, just for something extraordinary. A new piece of spy equipment, a Barcode Battler, or a new joystick for my Commodore 64. But I was in love and I wanted to show my girl the best time you could have in Swindon – the Oasis and the Domebusters on a Saturday afternoon.
I paid for her – ever the gentleman. Some would have been embarrassed counting out 63 small silver coins but chivalry provided a shield to my shame. We rode the Domebusters, splashed in the waves a bit, didn’t talk a lot. She gave me a peck on the cheek behind the red slide – the kind of dry prod a distant aunt would give you at a family gathering. On Monday, she dumped me. The shock and the realisation I had wasted my money provoked an asthma attack. The dinner lady thought I was going to die.
The Shark trapped in THE porthole
You pinch your nose and push yourself down below the surface. You feel out the recessed circular porthole in the curved tile wall. You think you see something move behind the glass – a snout bashing aggressively, a blurred gnashing of teeth. You look again but your goggles have steamed up and you’re running out of air. You come up to the surface: ‘There’s something down there alright!”
The Wave Machine
You could swim through the waves like Casey Jean Parker or Mitch Buchannon, crashing through the surf to save a drowning babber from Bassett. Alternatively, you could swim out to the far left corner of the pool and tuck your toes up under the rail and lie back as the waves buoyed you rhythmically beneath the fronds of palm trees.
Clean your feet
There was a puddle of water you had to walk through before you entered the pool area. You were supposed to clean your feet – a place that gave the illusion of cleanliness but was in fact a petri dish of pubes and verrucas.
The communal changing rooms, where young families would get into their costumes, was a fleshy horror show for a five year old me: a Francis Bacon-like blur of wobbly arses, ungroomed thatches and disturbing dangly bits.
When you paid for swimming, you were handed a coloured rubber band to go around your wrist. It represented your locker colour. You were restricted as to how long you could swim. Orange lockers – 5 minutes – the time remaining flashing up on a screen above an artificial boulder.
The Water Cannon
An alarm sounded. It was a health and safety prerequisite. The freezing water arced out across the pool, smashing into skin like needles – aquapuncture. It made you feel alive and long for death simultaneously. If it happened in any other context, then you would run screaming from it – here you turned to face it knowing it would make or break you.
Construction image and Domebusters via Otto Smith. Any information on image credit please get in touch.
Postcard image via LCC Municipal.